Thursday, June 26, 2008

Mother of Tears: Mother of God...

Let's get the bad news regarding Italian horror maestro Dario Argento's new film out of the way first: Mother of Tears is patently absurd, pitched stratospherically over-the-top, and presented with absolutely no restraint or subtlety whatsoever. The good news, meantime, is that Mother of Tears is patently absurd, pitched stratospherically over-the-top, and presented with no restraint or subtlety whatsoever.

Regular visitors to the Dish know that I've been a big fan of Argento's oeuvre for years. He devises stunningly engineered, extremely gruesome chillers where visual magnificence skips merrily alongside nightmare logic and occasional flat-out goofiness. And while Mother of Tears probably isn't the most ideal introduction to the man's work (go here for some background and recommendations), it's his wildest, wooliest, and most entertaining feature in years. It opens in Seattle for a limited run at the Varsity Theater July 4.

MOT details the vale of woe that erupts when a team of art restorers opens an ancient, cursed urn and releases the spirit of the powerful witch Mater Lachrymarum (AKA The Mother of Tears). The sorceress's essence soon gets down to lethal business, killing desecrators and throwing all of Italy into an apocalyptic tailspin as one of those restorers, Sarah (Dario's daughter, Asia Argento), flees--then stands up to--Mater's supernatural armada.

So, yeah, superficially Mother of Tears resembles your typical end-of-days horror flick, but it's way, way weirder than that. The best blanket of similes I can cough up is Baz Luhrman and David Lynch co-directing The Omen or The Ninth Gate with a little DaVinci Code-style religious skullduggery stirred in, during one lulu of an acid trip (asking for linearity from a Dario Argento film is like asking for a Tarantino flick without cinematic references, or a Bergman movie sans introspection).

Just a small sample of the strangeness within: cackling goth-cum-Japanese-schoolgirl witches; a toothy, chrome-domed assassin with a two-pronged eye-gouging implement; former Argento muse (and Asia's real-life mom) Daria Nicolodi lending a spectral hand like some Mediterranean Obi-Wan Kenobi; mass suicides; baby-chucking; Udo Kier; and the kinds of elaborately-orchestrated, gruesomely-creative onscreen deaths (strangulation by ones' own intestines? Okeydoke!) that have cemented Argento's status as a gorehound icon.

For the movie's first ten or fifteen minutes, the broadly silly (even by Argento's standards) dialogue and wildly-gesticulating cast don't inspire much faith. As it unspools, though, Mother of Tears actually revels in its silliness, and there's a self-aware subversiveness that reflects favorably on the movie's director. This is the Final Chapter of sorts to Argento's Three Mothers Trilogy (the first being the masterful Suspiria and second the erratic-but-still-pretty-mindblowing Inferno), and he both satirizes and homages those earlier works here.

At certain points Argento also extends a middle finger at fans' and critics' expectations. He largely refuses to duplicate the wildly saturated colors and dreamlike rhythms of his vaunted seventies output, and pushes everything else--performances, pacing, onscreen violence--to the proverbial eleventh notch on the volume knob. All along, the Maestro's visual elegance and fluidity remain in place alongside the blood, excess, and absurdity.

The crimson-spattered universe that Argento's been crafting for almost forty years thrives the most when he completely cuts loose and indulges his wildest, most outre impulses. That's what he does, to the nth degree, in Mother of Tears. After a good decade-and-a-half of delivering diluted variations on the styles and themes he innovated, Dario Argento has once more allowed himself to go completely and categorically nuts.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Indiana Jones: A Chicken Bone that Won't Exit my Craw

My wife Rita posted a much more direct (and immediate) reaction to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but after watching Raiders of the Lost Ark again last night--and the entire preceding trilogy over the last couple of weeks--I had to add my two cents.

I truly went into the new Indy film with the straightforward, simple expectation of a couple of hours of undemanding fun, and a comfy reunion with some old friends. Crystal Skull actually delivered that for me during its first, oh, fifteen or twenty minutes. Heck, even the Atomic Test Site scene genuinely amused me, and I momentarily (but enthusiastically) questioned why so much of the fanboy community had its collective Star Wars Underoos in such a bunch.

Then came the remaining 104 minutes. And I'm inclined to blame most of it on George Lucas.

The George Lucas who co-piloted Indy 4 is not the George Lucas who directed American Graffiti. Nor is he the brilliant-idea-laden visionary who knew when to cede substantial creative input on his best ideas to other, better writers and directors. No, the George Lucas behind Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the obscenely wealthy, powerful, and out-of-touch techno-baron whose reverse Midas touch effectively turned the Star Wars franchise from gold to feces. I'm not disputing the man's technical genius, nor the fact that he's been a vital force on some of my favorite films ever. But bluntly put, he can't screenwrite his way out of a paper bag.

Crystal Skull's script brims with all of the trademarks of Star-Wars-prequel-era Lucas. Lawrence Kasdan's screenplay for the original Raiders honed Lucas' and Phil Kaufman's basic story to sublime pulp-cliffhanger perfection, creating characters as vivid and memorable as the slam-bang action: Crystal Whatever takes most of those same characters and rewrites them with the subtlety of a finger-painting five-year-old. One paragraph of tired exposition won't do when Lucas can cram six pages' worth into a scene. Characters' motivations and fates can't just be implied: THEY MUST BE SPELLED OUT IN BLOCK LETTERS AND DRAWN OUT WITH MAGIC MARKERS. And that numbing literalness just brings the movie's cornucopia of irritating faults into stark relief.

Does any of Skull's insufferable arguing between Indy and Marion ring remotely true? Is there any basis in reality to the manufactured Lifetime-Movie-of-the-Week backstory behind the couple's split? Would any remotely rational human being besides Lucas be dense enough to create a central McGuffin as alternately far-fetched and dull as that in Crystal Skull? Do the characters played by John Hurt and Ray Winstone even need to be in the movie at all? Does Cate Blanchet's Boris's-Natasha-gone-dominatrix schtick hold even the dimmest candle to the elegant villainy of Paul Freeman's Bellaq or Ronald Lacey's coldly malevolent Toht? Does anyone care about the masturbatory alien-porn visuals that clog the movie's finale?

Gifted as he is, I can't let Spielberg off the hook, either. He's spent so many years being a grown-up making (relatively) grown-up films that he seems inordinately rusty with the young-at-heart sense of adventure required to make the whole enterprise fly. There's just no joy, no lightness of touch to his work here: He's giving the fans what he feels they want, instead of investing any of himself in it (longtime friendship aside, how else to explain his willingness to even work with Lucas' lousy, lousy script?). Spielberg may feel like he's beyond the poppy fizz of the Indy films artistically, but if that's the case he and Lucas should've turned over the reins to someone who cares.

Yes, Temple of Doom and Last Crusade have faults, and neither attains the seamless perfection and magic of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The former's probably the most completely worthless of the series, what with Kate Capshaw's strident harpy bleating and its utterly cheapjack look and visuals; and Last Crusade sports the series' most asinine denouement (some old coot in chainmail guarding a clay cup? Puh-LEEZE!). But at least Doom moves, dammit, and Crusade's attention to the relationship between Indy and his father is worth its weight in gold. Crystal Skull lumbers when it should bound, and it shouts and meanders when it should just tell the story the best it can. And don't even get me started on how totally the movie wastes the still-engaging Harrison Ford and the still-luminous Karen Allen (I'm hopeful that they received rich financial rewards for their souls).

Most staggering to me is the overwhelmingly enthusiastic critical response to this latest Indy film. It's a textbook example of what I call The Revenge of the Sith Syndrome: Viewers are so desperate to see a new Indiana Jones film--ANY Indiana Jones film--that they'll immediately see quality in the end product. It's movie viewing through beer goggles. And once the beer-goggle haze lifts, audiences and critics will wake up and wonder what in the hell possessed them to climb into bed with Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull in the first place.

I'm feeling extra metaphor-rich this afternoon, so I'll toss another one out: Throwing a shiny piece of special-effects spaceship tin foil over the Emperor's head doesn't make him any less buck-assed naked, people.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Requiem for a Pro: Sydney Pollack and Three Days of the Condor

It's been a few weeks since the sad passing of director/actor Sydney Pollack, but appreciation for his life and work will never get old as far as I'm concerned.

The man helmed some truly great films throughout an era much ballyhooed as the last Golden Age of American Cinema--the Seventies. In contrast to Altman's loose-knit improvisation, Coppola's sense of bruised epic romanticism, and Scorsese's mean-street virtuosity, Pollack--like his aesthetic and generational peer Sidney Lumet--kept it direct.

That unerring knack for setting aside visual or thematic showiness to tell the damn story imprinted itself all over Pollack's best directorial efforts, and nowhere is it more prominent than in 1975's Three Days of the Condor. It's out in bare-bones form on DVD, and (all high-fallutin' verbal foppery aside) it completely and utterly rules.

Robert Redford plays Joe Turner, a low-level CIA researcher who comes back from lunch one afternoon to find his entire covert office shot up, and his coworkers massacred. Soon he's on the run with no one to trust, save one reluctant stranger, Kathy (Faye Dunaway). The requisite conspiracy-thriller ingredients--labyrinthian twists and turns, betrayals, and yep, broad-based conspiracy--ensue.

It's all masterfully engineered by Pollack, who ratchets up maximum tension by playing on Turner's initial sense of disorientation. Unlike the nigh-indestructible Jason Bourne, Redford's hero bruises and blunders as he finds his own espionage sea-legs by trial and error (speaking of the Bourne series, those first-rate thrillers owe an enormous debt to Condor's blend of skullduggery, technojargon, and corrupt government forces attempting to devour their own). And the cast--Redford credibly playing up the intelligence behind those matinee-idol looks, Dunaway at her most vulnerable and charming, Max Von Sydow as a taciturn hitman, and Cliff Robertson as the possibly duplicitous 'company man'--all shine.

In the end, Three Days of the Condor lays bare the thing that made Sydney Pollack one of the most consistent directors of his generation: The ability to tell straightforward stories that combine contemporary topicality with good old-fashioned Hollywood star power and entertainment value. And nobody nowadays (excepting George Clooney on a good night) is even daring to cobble together those elements so artfully. No wonder everybody misses seventies cinema...And one of its most talented, recently-fallen practitioners.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A Helping Hand to Little Critters in Need

I normally try to keep this Blog focused on all things pop culture, but I'm breaking that unwritten dictum here.

Singly and as a couple, the missus and I have had pet rats for over twenty years. They're smart, sweet, all-around terrific companions (see archival entry from this here Blog for more details).

We adopted three new babies recently (as chronicled on Rita's Atomic War Bride Blog) from a rat rescue service, and there's been an influx of rescues in recent weeks. A few wastes of human flesh and blood have even thrown some of these innocent creatures, caged, into dumpsters where they were just barely rescued from certain death.

In between the adorable pictures of our new family members on Rita's Blog are links to rat rescue websites in Washington, Canada, and Oregon. If you're willing and able to give one a good home, please consider adopting a rat. They're relatively low maintenance, sweet-tempered, smart, and well worth the attention. And if you need any advice on feeding and care, well, you know where to find me.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Pop Culture Petri Dish's Greatest Hits

OK, a little bird told me that there might be a link from a wildly popular satire website/blog to here. And wouldn't you know it, I'm caught with my metaphoric pants down: Lotsa irons in the fire, but no new entries ready for street release.

But I DO have the next best thing: A few links to some of the most popular entries on this here Pop Culture Petri Dish. So enclosed please find The Petri Dish's Greatest Hits (at least according to the old Site Meter).

If you have a strong opinion about Tom Cruise, go here. Then here. And then here.

If you think that an Indonesian action flick with Crocodile Men, head loppings, wholesale kung fu, and whip-wielding hags sounds like more fun than any of the Oscar-nominated movies of 2007, visit here.

Aching to peruse some prattling about--God forbid--a really good movie? Go here, and here.

How about horror movies? Go here. And here. Maybe here. And here. Ah, Hell...hit the archives: This Blog's rolling in horror stuff.

Last but not least, if you'd like to read the most popular entry on the Dish (so saith Site Meter), go here. Jigsaw rules.

There you have it. A greatest hits collection without one half-assed new song recorded to suck in the hardcore fans--both of them. Stop by. Take a look. Say hi.